Norman Lewis was
born in Harlem, New York. In his early youth he was a pageboy for the
George M. Cohan Theater and a seaman traveling through South America. Lewis
studied at Columbia University and with Augusta Savage at the Savage Studio of
Arts and Crafts. He
taught at the Harlem Art Center and at PS 139. Later he was an instructor at the
Art Students League. A part of the Harlem Renaissance group of the 1930s,
he became a member of the 306 Group.
As in the case of every artists,
Lewis experimented with various styles and phases. In the 1930s his style
was predominantly figurative. In the 1940s abstraction was slowly becoming
apparent, even in his figurative works. It wasn’t until the 1950s that
Lewis’s mature unique style evolved. He shared philosophical concepts in
his creative approach to his work with the artists of the Abstract Expressionist
movement. "for Lewis…abstraction was an important pathway to artistic freedom
and individual freedom."
Lewis, unlike, other African-American
artists, had the ability to communicate both with African-Americans and with the
White mainstream world. With new found artistic freedom he became a part of the
famous group of American avant-garde artist who rejuvenated American Art and the
New York art scene. He began exhibiting his work at the Marian Willard Gallery
in 1946, where he exhibited with well known artists like David Smith. The
"Studio 35” exhibition curated by the Museum of Modern Art’s Alfred H. Barr Jr.
was a showcase for Abstract Expressionist works. The show included Robert
Motherwell and David Lippold and Lewis was the only African-American in the
"Lewis was an active participant in two distinct art
milieux." Even with his association with the New York School, Lewis did not
abandon his roots in the Black community. "[Lewis] believed art should be used
to promote social change." From 1963-6, he, along with other
African-American artists, formed with Romare Bearden the Spiral Group. In
1969, with Bearden and Ernest Crichlow, he established the Cinque Gallery.
In 1971 he withdrew his work from the Whitney Museum’s Contemporary Black
American Art show, after the BECC boycotted the show.
A few years
prior to his death, from 1973-76, Lewis was commissioned to paint a mural for
Boys High school in Brooklyn, New York. The same year the mural was
completed, The Graduate Center of City University of New York held Lewis’s last
major exhibition, Norman Lewis: A Retrospective.
been a resurgence of interest in Lewis’s work. His contribution
to American culture is being reassessed; his work is being reconsidered
with postmodern hindsight as the post-colonial aesthetic and its impact on mainstream
art has been observed. The stature of Lewis’s body of work is such that he
can be seen as a paradigmatic artist and not merely as a late addition to
the Abstract Expressionist canon.